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Baby boomer brain drain may be hype, but it's not a lie

Some CIOs say the exodus of legacy workers is overhyped. But that doesn't mean it isn't really happening.

CIO baby boomers call a pending shortage of IT legacy workers bunk.

While experts warn that soon there will be a "brain drain" as baby boomers retire and take their legacy skills with them, some CIOs claim it's just not that big a deal.

The loss of business knowledge is a much greater concern to me than technical skills.
Michael Pate
director of ITComplete Production Services Inc.
"To be brutally honest, I haven't given it any thought," said Michael Pate, director of IT at Complete Production Services Inc., a Houston-based oil field services company. "As of today, I only have one member of my organization who is within 10 years of retirement, and he is in a management position. Thus, I will not lose any substantial technical skills."

Steve Kraus, CIO of Olan Mills Inc., a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based chain of photographic portrait studios, said, "Our nearest retirements are 10-plus years away at this point." He said he's more concerned about losing skills to forced layoffs than retirements.

"While we have not been threatened by baby boomer retirement issues, we have been under constant threat of forced layoffs due to financial challenges in our company. As a result, we try to be more prepared to downsize with relatively little notice. This has forced us to consciously cross-train and have 'three-deep coverage' in key areas."

Phil Murphy, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., has published several research notes this year advising CIOs that they should be preparing for the coming shortage of legacy skills. He said he isn't surprised CIOs aren't seeing the much-talked-about wave of retirements just yet.

"There's an awful lot of hype that there is a current shortage of legacy skills," Murphy said. "I've been saying for a while now that there's no current shortage. In several years when this thing starts to hit in earnest, then I will begin to reverse my position. But right now it's early. We're several years away from a real problem."

But Murphy said CIOs (and the entire business, for that matter) should prepare for this now, even if the issue does seem like a load of hype. He has advised CIOs to start holding onto their mainframe computer operators and systems programmers, and to start taking a census of their staffs. He said they should see which roles have a population of employees who are nearing retirement age, and establish formal programs to protect against the loss of intellectual property and business knowledge.

"We're several years away from a real problem, but much like the [Y2K crisis] the time to start working on this is now," Murphy said. "With the year 2000 problem, organizations started working on it in 1995, not 1999. I think CIOs are mired in a one-to-three-years mentality, and this is more years out."

Perhaps CIOs aren't formally assessing their vulnerability to a coming shortage of legacy skills, as Murphy is advising, but many are starting to have discussions about it.

"We haven't done a formal assessment, but it certainly is an issue we are starting to discuss as part of our overall workforce deployment activities," said Mary Finlay, deputy CIO of Partners HealthCare System Inc., a Boston-based parent company of several elite hospitals.

Despite the dire warnings from experts, many baby boomers themselves say the whole issue is just hype. There are plenty of boomers out there who want to work, they say. They have the technical skills to do the legacy work on systems written in COBOL or to maintain old mainframes, but they say CIOs don't want them because their skills aren't fresh. They've been out of work, or they haven't used those legacy skills in awhile.

"I do believe there are workers with [these skills] who are going unnoticed.," said 53-year-old Michael Mitchell, a project manager at the Michigan division of the American Automobile Association. "Hiring managers are too afraid to trust that someone with 10-plus years of these skills could still perform if the skills are not fresh, which is ludicrous. People who find themselves out of a job won't mind leveraging any skill they have to get themselves re-employed, but if you haven't done something for two to three years you are deemed unqualified. These are not skills that are forgotten that easily."

Steve Landis, a 55-year-old consultant who works with AS/400 technology, said he will be working well into his seventies because he's not financially ready to retire. He said there are "a whole bunch of guys like me who aren't working. I wouldn't be afraid to take a guy who hadn't worked in technology for three or four years. I'd have no doubts about his ability, and it would take no time to get them back up to speed."

Business knowledge loss critical

Forrester's Murphy said a skills shortage alone is easy to deal with. People can be trained in legacy technologies. But the business knowledge that boomers take with them will be a bigger drain on organizations.

"It's all about business knowledge," Murphy said. "You can train somebody in technical skills all day long, but these are the folks who know how the business works. It's their knowledge about the applications. Applications are nothing more than business rules codified to do the work. Their value is in the business knowledge, not 'Hey I can program in COBOL.'"

Pate added, "The loss of business knowledge is a much greater concern to me than technical skills. My opinion is technical skills is something which can be learned with a brief amount of training and mentoring. Business skills, on the other hand, are already somewhat scarce in the IT profession. This area should be the focus of my peers, versus the loss of technical skills."

Finley said she has found a way to leverage the knowledge of retirees even after they move on.

"The way we have dealt with it so far is to create independent consulting opportunities for those staff who are ready to leave us full time but aren't ready to completely pack it in," Finley said. "One such example is one of our hospital CIOs retired last year after 25 years of service. He now works for us as a consultant on some of our initiatives. It is a win-win situation. We get his knowledge and talent; he gets to spend some time with us and the rest of his time in Florida."

One baby boomer, an IT manager with a small government agency who did not want to identified, said her organization is completely unprepared for her retirement.

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She has been managing the IT organization in her agency for 15 years and will be retiring by next year. She said she has tried explaining to her superiors that her intimate knowledge of the organization's systems will be hard to replace. But they haven't listened to her. She worries for the rest of her staff members, who are young. They have technical skills, but their knowledge of the organization's systems don't run as deep.

"I'll be taking with me something that you can't really hire," she said. "You can hire people to come in and do the technical things. You can hire people who know how to do routers and firewalls. But the issue is the knowledge base behind everything we do, and the personal relationships I have built not only in the organizations we deal with but in the larger government as a whole.

"They think everything will be just fine and it won't be. I've been trying to teach my staff. I feel bad for them. What will happen to them? It's hard to explain this to people who do not have technical expertise or understand how things are put together."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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